In the first paragraph of Charles Baxter's "Ghosts," we learn the story is set in "an affordable but slightly run-down city neighborhood with its share of characters." The description could apply to most of the stories assembled for this admirably consistent career-encompassing collection, which extends to his 1984 debut, "Harmony of the World." The nearly two dozen stories in "Gryphon" take place in what you could call Baxterland: Midwestern in temperament if not location, with residents in conflict with somebody who seems to be a hair's breadth from cracking completely.
Baxter, the Edelstein-Keller Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota and a finalist for a National Book Award, has this territory to himself because it is so difficult to create -- a lesser writer might take this material and apply the arid ironies of dirty realism or make these hard-luck characters unsympathetic.
Consider the 2010 story "The Old Murderer," in which a recovering alcoholic struggles to make sense of his new neighbor, a paroled murderer who claims to be building a spaceship in his basement. Baxter reveals details about the murderer slowly, which builds the necessary narrative tension. But that tension also says something about the murderer's neighbor -- his hunger for detail exposes his urge to fill gaps in his own life. So when the nature of the "spaceship" is revealed, it's devastating for the neighbor and the reader alike.
Such dramatic turns tend to be subtle and seemingly unimportant at first -- a rude utterance from a homeless person, a stain spotted on a shirt, a song sung off-key -- but Baxter wrings plenty of emotional and metaphorical power from them. The collection's title story is a classic in this regard. Told from the perspective of a fourth-grader, "Gryphon" describes an eccentric substitute teacher who's freewheeling with facts: The pyramids are sources of cosmic power, six times 11 is 68. As the misleading lessons accrue, though, the story challenges preconceived notions of truth and adulthood.
Baxter's characters tend to stumble passively through life, curiously comfortable with the oddness that settles upon them. (Small wonder tarot decks appear a few times in these stories, heavy as they are on twists of fate.) But that makes them no less heroic. Indeed, the emotional and physical abuse a Swedish tourist suffers in Detroit in "The Disappeared" speaks to a shared sense that we can survive the worst of what's thrown at us. All Baxter asks in exchange from his characters is a bit of candor. In the closing story, "The Winner," a business journalist visits the compound of a wealthy entrepreneur, and the writer's urge to show up the billionaire transforms into a bitter emotional breakdown. In moments like that, Baxter's legacy to fiction is clear: For more than 25 years he's insisted that we're kidding ourselves a little whenever we call ourselves "normal."
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.